What to Make of an Augmented Thing: Amy Clampitt’s Syntactic Dramas
Amy Clampitt looked like a tea cozy; lived like a bohemian; thought like a radical; sounded, especially when reading her own work, like an excited precocious teenager (if Marilyn Monroe had been an intellectual, this is how she would have talked); and wrote like an angel. In the fifteen years between her late but flamboyant arrival on the poetry scene and her death in 1994, Clampitt was both lionized and derided. Her admirers and detractors often agree in their characterization of her work—with its old-fashioned lushness, its frank interest in the lives and the writing of the Romantic poets, its frequent flaunting of scholarly and scientific knowledge, its playful elegance, and its unashamed reveling in language at once arcane and precise—and differ only in their evaluation of it. One critic claims that one of her longer poems “refuse[s] easy enthusiasms and guard[s] against hollow ‘epic’ pretensions. . . . The language is a deft compromise between narrative propulsion and lyric accretion.” Others, harboring an often unstated philistine suspicion of ornament and a preference for the plain over the fancy and for the simple over the baroque, belittle the elaborate, overburdening style that turns the poetry into “a parody of the Victorian silk that Pound sought to unravel,” or mock the “bathetic enthusiasm” that emerges from the “forced” accumulation of her details.1 De gustibus non est disputandum. One reader’s deftness is another’s bathos.
The effect of sitting down to read her Collected Poems is one of inundation, and certainly not to everyone’s taste. Overrichness is a problem: “like a whole meal of desserts,” one skeptic said to me. But now it is time to take the measure of America’s oldest young poet, whose five books from 1983 to 1994 have taken cover in a single volume sympathetically introduced by the poet Mary Jo Salter.2 It is time to praise richness and decoration, the baroque and the ornamental, the dramatic uses to which description may be put.
In her intelligent but stubborn (even wrong-headed) essay “Against Decoration,” Mary Karr comes down hard on Clampitt before tearing into the true objects of her disapproval, James Merrill and some of the avatars of the New Formalism. For Karr, “[One passage] . . . could be Swinburne on acid or Tennyson gone mad with his thesaurus.”3 Karr reduces New Formalism’s multiple sins to two: absence of emotion and lack of clarity. While acknowledging that Clampitt herself was never very much of a “formalist” poet, preferring stanzas or lines with a metrical base but seldom limiting herself to patterns of rhyme, Karr decides that the intricacies of Clampitt’s syntax, her reliance on a difficult, obscure vocabulary, her scholarly apparatus that made as much of literary allusiveness and botanical nomenclature as of “lived” life, all remove her from the possession of the real power of what Karr considers authentic poetry.
Most readers would prefer Victorian silk to the émaux et camées of Poundian Imagism, and as for Clampitt’s high-flown diction, her “literariness,” her excited sense of wonder when confronting familiar or exotic landscapes or those places where her cultural heroes (the Wordsworths, Keats, Coleridge, George Eliot) trod, many would say, not “Basta!” but “More!” (Ironically, the beautiful sequence “Homage to John Keats” [WTLWL, 141–161] must be counted something of a poetic failure, as only a reader with a full grasp of the details of Keats’s life and works can respond fully to the deeply referential poems.) Besides the afflatus of Hart Crane and the plainness of William Carlos Williams, Clampitt’s delicately powerful mingling of high and low, big and small, fancy and fact, the extravagant and the everyday seems like an authentically revolutionary stance for an American poet at the end of her century. A poet can legitimately expect his or her readers to work toward emotion and clarity (or emotional clarity). As I show, Clampitt’s poetic tropings and syntactic adventures replicate an Emersonian nature that “cannot be surprised in undress. Beauty breaks in everywhere.”4 In addition, one must acknowledge—in this era of obsession with, if not always sensitivity to, gender issues—the uniqueness of a female poet unashamedly tackling subjects and techniques that we associate more commonly with the poet who was rightfully and peculiarly Clampitt’s truest precursor: not her beloved Keats, Wordsworth, or Hopkins, but Walt Whitman. Among women poets in the past fifty years, only the more flamboyantly abstruse Jorie Graham has anything approaching Clampitt’s ambition.
All of her intellectual and cultural appetite is easy to miss amid the sheer gorgeousness of Clampitt’s sounds, streaming, even gushing from the page as though released after years of captivity. (As everyone must know by now, Clampitt was over sixty, with several unpublished novels in her desk, when her first volume, The Kingfisher, appeared.) From the start she is linguistically inebriated, as when she moves eagerly from tongue to tongue, landscape to landscape, on a train into Italy from France:
The train leaps toward Italy, the French Riviera
falls away in the dark, the rails sing dimeter
shifting to trimeter, a galopade to a galliard.
We sit wedged among strangers; whatever
we once knew (it was never much) of each other
falls away with the landscape. Words
fall away, we trade instead in flirting
and cigarettes; we’re all rapport with strangers.
(“Losing Track of Language,” WTLWL, 182)
Loss and losing, all the processes of diminishment, are the originary causes of accumulation, in whatever form. Clampitt often builds her poems like this signature piece, insouciantly, from an anecdotal opening that broaches major themes (language, history, and culture) in the most offhand way. The delights of experience not only balance, but also depend on, the losses we have suffered.
And Clampitt is a poet well aware of loss. The richness of diction, sound, syntax, and sentiment informing her work from the start, just like her love of Keats and the other Romantics, derives from her snowman-like center: although she did not have a heart or mind of winter, she had been cold for a long time. No one who has never know viscerally was it is like to be frozen to the bone can understand “The Eve of St. Agnes” (she once said in conversation) and its ravishing, compensatory dreams of sensuous fulfillment, warmth, and an escape to the southern moors. She arrived at lushness from the chill of her Iowa farmstead and from a political-religious austerity bred into her by her Quaker forebears and developed through years of political consciousness and activity. For every synaesthetic embellishment and every hothouse bloom, such as
Mirrored among jungle blooms’ curled crimson
and chartreuse, above the mantel, diva-throated
tuberoses, opening all the stops, deliver
Wagnerian arias of perfume
(“Townhouse Interior with Cat,” WTLWL, 174)
she gives us simple declarative sentences, aphoristic nuggets of wisdom, and moral principles from which some poems proceed or to which they often lead. “A Hermit Thrush” (AF), for instance, begins, “Nothing’s certain.” Clampitt seldom uses a two-word sentence anywhere, and the stark certainty of this opening prepares us for her investigation (as throughout the entire volume) of tenuousness and tenacity, focusing on a “gust-beleaguered single spruce tree,” the uncertainty of everything except “the tide that / circumscribes us,” and the title figure, Clampitt’s homage to the various race of Romantic birds, especially Thomas Hardy’s “Darkling Thrush.” The poem ends:
. . . Watching
the longest day take cover under
a monk’s-cowl overcast,
with thunder, rain and wind, then waiting,
we drop everything to listen as a
hermit thrush distills its fragmentary,
hesitant, in the end
unbroken music. From what source (beyond us, or
the wells within?) such links perceived arrive—
diminished sequences so uninsistingly
not even human—there’s
hardly a vocabulary left to wonder, uncertain
as we are of so much in this existence, this
botched, cumbersome, much-mended,
not unsatisfactory thing.
All of the hallmarks of Clampitt’s poetry are here: the parenthetical questions that sidetrack and amplify (a lesson learned from Elizabeth Bishop); the long sentences; the personification of “the longest day” (with a reminder of its connection to her human observers, themselves taking separate but parallel cover); the skepticism in the face of happiness and wonder, tellingly arrived at in the extended adjectives of the last two lines; and the characteristic British litotes (“not unsatisfactory”), which articulates the understated happiness that Clampitt is always surprised to encounter. In a world where nothing is certain except the tide that circumscribes all human and natural activity, it is an appropriate stylistic habit for Clampitt to write around her subject (a disgruntled reader might even condescendingly call her poems periphrastic), circumscribing her vision of the world with sentences that attack, home in on, retreat from, and then reapproach their main objects. For her a “thing in itself” cannot exist; it will always invite another look, another “take,” or it will require another, supplemental effort to describe and present it.
For all of the richness in her poetry, Clampitt is, like James Merrill, equally an elegaic poet of loss and dislocation. “Losing Track of Language” examines one kind of loss and compensatory gain; “Midsummer in the Blueberry Barrens” (AF, 266) begins with a nod in the direction of Wordsworth, Bishop, and Frost (“Tintern Abbey,” “Cape Breton,” and “Directive,” respectively) by conveying a pattern of disappearance in a landscape: “Away from the shore, the roads dwindle and lose themselves / among the blueberry barrens.” Clampitt is sensitive to natural erosion and encroachment for more than merely ecological or aesthetic reasons.5 All evidence of change echoes personal instability. As early as “On the Disadvantages of Central Heating” (K, 17), she remarks “the farmhouse long sold, old friends / dead or lost track of.” Later in that volume, in her first great long poem, “A Procession at Candlemas” (22), Clampitt alludes to Native Americans as merely one of many migratory tribes:
. . . The westward-trekking
transhumance, once only, of a people who,
in losing everything they had, lost even
the names they went by, stumbling past
like caribou, perhaps camped here.
Such renderings of loss, forgetting, unwrapping, returning, and unpeeling are the essential cause of all those accumulations—in imagery, metaphor, rhythm, and syntax—that annoy or fatigue Clampitt’s thoughtless or lazy readers. She always puts the weight of her style at the service of diminishments. She is, in fact, as likely to dismiss as to welcome ornament for its own sake; she disdains the merely cute, once referring condescendingly to “Guido Reni, master / of those who prettify” (“The Nereids of Seriphos,” AF, 219). Her true Americanness reveals itself in those moments when she adheres to a Yankee’s, or a farmer’s, sense of value: she loves “all that / utilitarian muck down underfoot” (“The Local Genius,” K, 62) or objets trouvés that are dear for their fragility and their usefulness, like the straw racks in “Stacking the Straw” (K, 63) that exemplify the biblical ephemerality of all flesh. Yet these “beveled loaves” also amount to “the nearest thing the region had / to monumental sculpture.” Like Whitman (“This Compost”), Stevens (“The Man on the Dump”), and A. R. Ammons (Garbage), she bears witness to the beauty of accumulated masses of compost, as in “The Reedbeds of the Hackensack” (WTLWL, 165), a bravura sestina (itself a classic form of recycling) with overtones of “Lycidas,” in which she meditates on “a poetry of the incorrigibly ugly.” Or she contemplates “the pleasures of the ruined” in “Salvage” (K, 36):
I find esthetic
satisfaction in these
from the category of
to regions where pigeons’
in whirligigs, reclaim
a parking lot.
She abhors wastefulness, admiring the Darwinian elegance of destruction on the Serengeti plains, where first lions then “down-ruffed vultures,” then “feasting maggots / hone the flayed widebeest’s ribcage / clean as a crucifix” (“Good Friday,” K, 68). On such natural selection does Clampitt build her own idiosyncratic theology.
One typical misunderstanding of ornament resents it for manufacturing false, unwarranted Sturm und Drang and for confusing mere excess with depth. In fact, Clampitt proves everywhere that “depth is not everything,” as she aphoristically announces in “The Spruce Has No Taproot” (WTLWL, 117). We can take this arboreal example as one of Clampitt’s own talismans: like all the weeds, seedlings, easily displaced persons, tribes, and species with which she identifies, it roots itself shallowly in order to adapt and to form a subtle community:
. . . the spruce
has no taproot, but to hold on
spreads its underpinnings thin—
a gathering in one continuous,
meshing intimacy, the interlace
of unrelated fibers
joining hands like last survivors
who, though not even neighbors
hitherto, know in their predicament
security at best is shallow.
Such shallowness makes freedom the reward for truancy. Thus, the “pokeweed, sprung from seed / dropped by some vagrant” (“Vacant Lot with Pokeweed,” [W, 329), which seizes a temporary foothold; or, in the same group, a set of bamboo curtains, “going up where / the waterstained old ones had been, and where the seedlings— / O gray veils, gray veils—had risen and gone down,” in the apartment of a Greenwich Village eccentric (“A Hedge of Rubber Trees,” 335). “Nothing stays put,” she announces in a poem of that title in this series that celebrates as well as laments eternal impermanence: “All that we know, that we’re / made of, is motion” (339). No contemporary poet except Ammons has such a grasp on the fact, dangerous and attractive at once, of entropy as a force operating microscopically, historically, and cosmically.
Motion has political, as well as psychological, causes and effects. Clampitt cites the words of an Omaha Indian in her signature piece “The Prairie” (W, 346):
The white man does not understand America,
a red man wrote: the roots of the tree of his life
have yet to grasp it.
Above all, the essence of such motion has, as it must for a poet who habitually seeks the proper form for her vision, syntactic consequences, as I discuss in greater detail in the second half of this chapter. The “interlace” of her spruce tree is also the right word to apply to the meshings by which Clampitt, here and elsewhere, duplicates and represents those other familial, cultural, and historical reticulations, the elaborately constructed networks that enable our individual lives to flourish. Where uprooting and exile, even when temporarily denied or held at bay, pose a constant threat, the only home a poet may finally claim is a strongly built, involved, poetic structure. (A bit less compulsively than Merrill and the younger contemporary poet Mark Doty, Clampitt has a fondness for little stanzaic “rooms” that offer one kind of refuge. Stanzas are like description and memory themselves: efforts to separate as well as to combine the various strands of that multicolored fabric we call life.)6 The early poem “Black Buttercups” (WTLWL, 125) makes the best case for the wariness Clampitt learned as a child in the face of unhousing and exile. Although she never suffered, as Merrill did, from a “broken home” (i.e., from divorce), she lost her Edenic farmstead during, but not as a result of, the Depression, when she was ten and her family moved to a different homestead several miles away. Exile and menace were the lot of her ancestors, always on the go. Even the original farmstead gave onto a symbol of final menace:
. . . the terrain began to drop (the creek
down there had for a while powered a sawmill,
but now ran free, unencumbered, useless)—
that not-to-be-avoided plot whose honed stones’
fixed stare, fanned in the night
by passing headlights, struck back
the rueful semaphore:
There is no safety.
Like Hopkins, Frost, and Heaney, other masters of rural pleasure and rural coldness, Clampitt knows how to brace her Latinate syntax and vocabulary with a harsh, grim monosyllabic string (“plot whose honed stones’ / fixed stare, fanned in the night”) for a maximally chilling effect.
Once a reader looks closely at the relationship between levels of diction or at kinds of syntax, he or she necessarily becomes aware of the consequences of Clampitt’s stylistic choices. Her so-called literariness unites the political and aesthetic dimensions of her poetry: it proves that words, phrases, and even allusions are, like human beings, intricately enmeshed in greater units. Any reader, especially a younger one, who has not been trained in either Milton or (especially) in Latin, will have difficulty following the syntax of even a short poem such as “Witness” (WTLWL, 128), a single-sentence bus ride poem (discussed below); or understand the use of “depends from” in its literal sense of “hanging” (“Savannah,” W, 318); or be sensitive to the combination of the laconic and the ascetic with the extensive and the embellished at the end of “Thermopylae” (AF, 205):
. . . we ponder a funneled-down inscription: Tell
them for whom we came to kill and were killed, stranger,
how brute beauty, valor, act, air, pride, plume here
buckling, guttered: closed in from behind, our spears
smashed, as, the last defenders of the pass, we fell,
we charged like tusked brutes and gnawed like bears.
It is daring enough to make the grim epitaph of Leonidas segue into the thrilling nouns of Hopkins’s “The Windhover,” but to move his falcon’s “buckle” into the Spartans’ “buckling, guttered,” and to urge a reminder of beauty’s brutality in the “tusked brutes” of carnage makes an even grander—and more resourceful—literary leap. And who else these days employs the ablative absolute, Clampitt’s own learning having become a naturalized part of her, with as much ease as this “old-fashioned” poet? “Our spears smashed” pushes us back into high school memories not of Leonidas and his Spartans but of Caesar and Cicero.
Far from being a merely ornamental poet, in other words, Clampitt has the artistry necessary to weigh, sometimes precariously, the trivial against the extraordinary. When thinking of the inevitable brevity of human life, she readjusts her syntax by relying on appropriate phrases instead of clauses, as at the end of her homage, “Margaret Fuller, 1847” (AF, 233):
. . . What did she do?
it would be asked (as though that mattered).
Gave birth. Lived through a revolution.
Nursed its wounded. Saw it run aground.
Published a book or two.
Verbs with only an implicit subject and a glaring rhyme (“aground . . . drowned”) heighten the horror of Fuller’s needless early death. Clampitt snips her normally lengthy sentences to match her heroine’s brief, thin-spun life. She knows, as did Yeats, that sometimes “there’s more enterprise in going naked” but only because she knows the feeling of going clothed.
It is no exaggeration to call her a religious poet, not just in her allegiance to a native Quaker spirit but also in her acknowledgment of many kinds of horror that threaten to undo the inner light and inner voice altogether except in rare moments of privilege, chance, or intuition. She cites (“The August Darks,” WTLWL, 108) a phrase from George Eliot, another of her spiritual and cultural heroes, which probably represents her own belief better than any other passage alluded to by this most allusive of contemporary poets: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence” (Middlemarch, II, 20). Always aware of “the dolor of the particular” (“High Noon,” W, 310), from which she never shies away, Clampitt is also a sufficiently political poet to know a fundamental truth about Eliot’s “roar,” which she announces matter-of-factly at the end of “The August Darks”: “Many / have already died of it.”
That Clampitt has restored ornament to poetry I take as a signal achievement, as I do her ambitious use of civilized scholarship, scientific learning, and bookish references. In the remainder of this chapter I want to look at the interplay between the two seemingly antithetical aspects of her poems: their Keatsian lusciousness and Quaker austerity. I do so by examining Clampitt’s syntax in a genre she has made peculiarly her own, the one-sentence poem, of which she has probably written a larger number than any other contemporary poet who adheres to conventional punctuation and sentence formation.7 Of the 193 poems in The Collected Poems, thirty-seven are one sentence long. In at least two others, one of which I discuss below, one extremely long sentence is followed by a clipped phrase (or short sentence) or two, and there are countless poems with several very long sentences in them, or several equal stanzas all composed of a single sentence. The whole issue becomes slightly more complicated when one takes into account the matter of punctuation. For example, “Or Consider Prometheus” (K, 89) consists of two poems, each of five quatrains. Each poem has two sentences, both questions, divided by a question mark and a capital letter to signify the beginning of sentence two. Elsewhere, the same rhetorical structure is divided not by full stops but by colons or semicolons. The choice of any punctuation is, of course, not logical or natural, but neither is it merely arbitrary or conventional. A reader with a feeling for Clampitt’s syntax might hear each of these two poems as a single sentence composed of equal parts. Likewise, in “The Waterfall” (AF, 271), two initial, questioning sentences are succeeded by a longer declarative one that ends without firm closure (“everywhere, existences / hang by a hair”). Even the determination of a sentence is not so easy a thing as one might think.
The whole issue of sentence formation links Clampitt to Whitman, that other Quaker Romantic, whom she resembles in more than her tendency to fuse lushness with a stern moral vision and her American commitment to the didactic properties inherent in landscape. Like hers, Whitman’s sentences have the tendency to welcome us and then set us loose us amid their elaborate extensions. From this grand seigneur of poems-as-lists, Clampitt has learned to construct an entire poem, or a large portion of one, by relying more heavily on nouns and nominal constructions than on predicates and verbal ones. Like him, she often resorts to a poetic structure in which apposition or anaphora, rather than subordination, predominates. The full effect of a sometimes exhaustive (or exhausting) encyclopedic listing depends to a large extent not only on the nature of its items, but also on its syntactic arrangements. Clampitt’s syntax, far from existing as a mere self-indulgent display of intricacy, possesses a powerful dramatic force.
Few critics attend to syntax anymore.8 Some years back, reviewing two other poets, Calvin Bedient made a brilliant obiter dictum when he called it “the field of verbal action whose limits are delay and delivery, opening up and closing up, blending and separating.”9 Even more than diction, referentiality, or what used to be called theme, syntax is the field in which Clampitt stakes her claims and makes her discoveries, while forcing her readers to make theirs. (As I suggested in the previous chapter, we must see through a poet’s eyes and language; our work matches what Tomlinson calls the “labour of observation.”) The drama of her syntax exposes and enacts that central pair of American obsessions, the need to stay put and the need to move on, one referred to obliquely (and in an English context) by the note appended to the one-sentence lyric, “Fireweed” (W, 325). Clampitt quotes from Donne’s last sermon at St. Paul’s: “Whatsoever moved Saint Jerome to call the journies of the Israelites, in the wilderness, Mansions, the word . . . . signifies but a journey, but a peregrination. Even the Israel of God hath no mansions; but journies, pilgrimages in this life.” The passage is attached to a poem that defines a fast-moving weed:
A single seedling, camp-follower
of arson—frothing bombed-out
rubble with rose-purple lotfuls
unwittingly as water overbrims,
tarn-dark or sun-ignited, down
from the foothold of a London
roof-ledge, taken wistful note of
by an uprooted prairie-dweller.
Clampitt locates the fireweed within the detritus of urban blight, planting it, so to speak, everywhere in her poem but really nowhere at all. The fireweed, like the prairie-born poet, is uprooted and easy to root at the same time. To understand the poem, we must supply an ontological “is,” once or more often, throughout its course. Thus, “Fireweed [is] a single seedling”; it [is] “unwitting / of past devastation as of what / remains,” and so forth. The poem is itself like a journey (a continuous act of definition) and also a mansion, or a cluster of single items (as if acknowledging the truth of Donne’s “We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms”); the eponymous, ubiquitous plant appears, at least linguistically, in the seven tercets as an object of appositional phrasing, a sequence of present participles but with no main verb. Journeys and mansions, centrifugal and centripetal forces, exist in a delicate balance in Clampitt’s ornate descriptions.
Why would a poet write a one-sentence poem, one that is longer than, for example, a sonnet? And what are the effects of such a choice? As I implied above, with regard to the very nature of sentence formation, a reader inevitably and automatically reduces a complex, lengthy unit into shorter experiential ones in order to take it all in. Among Clampitt’s one-sentence poems, two kinds immediately call attention to themselves. The first of these is visually conspicuous: the unpunctuated poem or the poem arranged with spatial designs on the page, such as “Easter Morning” (K, 70), which omits capital letters and a period; or “Let the Air Circulate” (WTLWL, 191), which lacks a real beginning and ending, but which imagines spaces of and within the air as blanks within its own typographical structure.
Another sort of one-sentence poem may be defined not by physical appearance but by subject. It is what we might call Clampitt’s homage to Elizabeth Bishop: poems (like Bishop’s “The Moose,” whose first sentence is thirty-six lines long) about journeys, in which a long stringing-together of phrases and clauses replicates the poet’s trip through a various landscape. We can locate the origin of these poems-of-process not only in Bishop but also in Clampitt’s imitation of the Romantic poets in general, and Keats in particular. Examples include “Witness” (WTLWL, 128), in which the mind, mirroring the landscape, actually tells the landscape how it looks, as the landscape itself becomes an abstraction; or “Dallas–Fort Worth: Redbud and Mistletoe,” “Iola, Kansas,” and “The Subway Singer” (W, 286, 291, 330), the first a rendition of an airplane descent, the second of a bus ride, the third of a moving subway train. In the second and third Clampitt develops her version of the sense of community that Bishop’s passengers acquire on their long divagation from Nova Scotia to Boston when stopped and confronted by that famous towering, antlerless, female moose. Like a bus or subway compartment, a sentence contains its own community, of phrases, clauses, parts of speech instead of people, although (as I explain below) this meeting place can harbor either equals or a variety of members some of whom are subordinate to others. The idea of a sentence as a community corresponds to the twin aspects of Clampitt’s character and style. As a Romantic she responds to hierarchy and to highlights, whereas the Quaker in her notices the inner light shining equally through various parts of a sentence, as through a human populace.
Our most famous poet-orphan, Bishop was always deeply skeptical of happiness and wisdom in equal measure. “Iola, Kansas” is an implicit homage to the Bishop of such poems as “Arrival at Santos” and “Cape Breton,” in addition to “The Moose,” which square the fear of the unknown with the thrill of (even touristic) adventure, and which ask us to measure the satisfactions of a seldom achieved community of feeling against the relative unlikelihood that we should ever experience, let alone deserve, happiness, pleasure, and personal identity even for an instant.
This one-sentence tour de force, reporting an all-night bus ride through the heart of the country, actually begins by echoing “Arrival at Santos,” which ends with an ominous flat statement (“We are driving to the interior”) after thirty-seven lines of wittily observed details. Clampitt’s journey is more industrialized, more noun-heavy:
Riding all night, the bus half empty, toward the interior,
among refineries, trellised and turreted illusory cities,
the crass, the indispensable wastefulness of oil rigs
offshore, of homunculi swigging at the gut of a continent.
As the bus proceeds from Texas through Oklahoma and into Kansas, it pauses at a rest stop in the godforsaken town of the title, where the narrator, “with something akin to reverence,” eats a piece of simple home-baked boysenberry pie before piling back onto the bus with her fellow travelers:
. . . then back to our seats,
the loud suction of air brakes like a thing alive, and
the voices, the sleeping assembly raised, as by an agency
out of the mystery of the interior, to a community—
and through some duct in the rock I feel my heart go out,
out here in the middle of nowhere (the scheme is a mess)
to the waste, to the not knowing who or why, and am happy.
Like the bus riders in “The Moose,” stopped by a giant creature in the middle of the road and then united by a “sweet / sensation of joy” before resuming their journey, 10 Clampitt and her companions join together in one of those rare moments of what we can only call grace. Spiritual longing and an awareness of “the strangeness of all there is” inspire her, in spite of her religious, political, and emotional wariness, to be ready to relish such moments when they do come. Rejoicing often takes place in a context of sharing—that is, within a community of other people whose very presence assures greater pleasure—and it takes place as well in the syntactic equivalent of community: a long sentence.
“Witness” (the very title has religious as well as spectatorial overtones) exemplifies the difficulty of understanding punctuation and its symbolic effects in Clampitt’s work. Typically we might assume that a colon suggests both identity (of the elements on either side of it) and linear progression. (Ammons comes immediately to mind.) This poem, however, is somewhat more complicated. Its three parts, divided by colons, treat what the speaker in her bus sees first within and then outside a small town.11 In the third section she finally suggests what it all means. The three sections are “part of an ordinary evening in Wisconsin,” somehow equivalences of one another. But the first two sections are more than merely balanced by the third; they are offset by it. Here are the two final parts:
. . . outside town
the barns, their red gone dark with sundown,
withhold the shudder of a warped terrain—
the castle rocks above, tree-clogged ravines
already submarine with nightfall, flocks
(like dark sheep) of toehold junipers,
the lucent arms of birches : purity
without a mirror, other than a mind bound
elsewhere, to tell it how it looks.
Everything in the first two parts of the poem comes to this: that single details add up to an abstraction (“purity”). The second colon stands at the precise midpoint between what precedes and what follows it. At the same time, the three parts of the poem are distinct, and nothing derives from or mirrors anything else, except the mind moving elsewhere, which reflects (in two senses) and “tells.” In the world of these poems, things often seem disjointed, superfluous, offhand, because randomly noticed or fitfully connected, as by the metaphorical associations of ravines with water (“submarine”), junipers with sheep, and birches with human “arms.”
The more difficult of the single-sentence poems can be defined rhetorically rather than thematically: they rely on the triple modes of apposition, enumeration, and subordination to bolster their observations. The first two are overlapping but different. As a trope of definition, apposition moves by discerning deeper versions of the same thing. Its form is: X is equally A, which resembles B, which reminds me of C, and so on. Enumeration, the trope of democratic equality, makes Whitmanian lists of separate items. The whole is the sum of its parts. Or it may work paradoxically by accretion and subtraction simultaneously. Clampitt herself in an early one-sentence poem (“On the Disadvantages of Central Heating,” K, 17)—all phrasal, and with no capital letters—refers to “the perishing residue of pure sensation,” a residue clarified at last by a verb that supplies a definition: “what’s salvaged is this vivid diminuendo.” A list poem works by accumulation. “On the Disadavantages of Central Heating” (the title suggests the list that follows) works at the same time to reduce its enumerated objects to a stripped-down version of reality, as many of its details refer to a past now “quite forgotten” or “lost track of.” As forms of listing, apposition and enumeration constitute what we might label Clampitt’s poetry of sensation, whereas subordination, a sentence composed of dependent and interrelated parts, produces her poetry of thought, to revert to Keats’s famous distinction.
Clampitt relies on apposition as invocation (in “Athena,” AF, 216) or on enumeration in the form of a list (“Kudzu Dormant,” W, 283) to suggest spiritual equality. This reliance may explain why so many of her poems lack simple independent verbs, developing instead through a gathering of nouns, noun phrases, objets trouvés, and their equivalents. Like Bishop, whose astute line “Everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and’ ” (“Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance”), could stand as her own borrowed motto, Clampitt often culminates her lists by articulating gratitude for simple gifts and truths. Romantic and baroque effects, rich imagery and syntactic complications (especially in the heavily subordinating poems that I discuss below) are reduced, distilled to revelation.
A typical appositive poem is “Marine Surface, Low Overcast” (K, 13–14). Its seven seven-line stanzas risk losing the reader in a nonstop welter of revisions, some merely a phrase, others more elaborate. The opening demands an elliptical verb:
Out of churned aureoles
[comes?] this buttermilk, this
herringbone of albatross,
floss of mercury,
déshabille of spun
aluminum, furred with a velouté
All the images are equivalent ways of troping a specific scene. It is as though Clampitt has taken Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” eliminated the numbers for the separate sections, and run together all of her figurations. The first three stanzas proceed with such metaphoric elaborations, and in the fourth the poem expands in two different ways:
laminae of living tissue,
mysteries of flex,
affinities of texture,
subtleties of touch, of pressure
and release, the suppleness
of long and intimate
Clampitt continues with her X of Y constructions, but these are now largely plural rather than singular, and they grow from sensuous specificity to a level of abstraction. By the end of the fifth stanza, the poem’s first stanzaic enjambment spills us over into the sixth, impulsively heightening a steady progress. And between stanzas 6 and 7 an even more dramatic syntactic breach appears, to move the poem, at last, out of apposition and into the realm of an implicit subordination. I quote from the start of the poem’s last concerted image:
cathedral domes that seem to hover
overturned and shaken like a basin
to the noise of voices,
from a rustle to the jostle
of such rush-hour
no loom, no spinneret, nor forge, no factor,
no process whatsoever, patent
applied or not applied for,
no five-year formula, no fabric
for which pure imagining,
except thus prompted,
can invent the equal.
For all the talk of Clampitt’s sensuousness (here evident in the accumulation of details, the reliance on Keatsian double-barreled adjectives, the insistent rhymes and half-rhymes), there is something ascetic about the end of the poem. Like Merrill, Clampitt sometimes omits relative pronouns or conjunctions, thereby forcing us to make sense of the missed connections above: “of such conglomerations [that there is] no loom [etc.] for which pure imagining . . . . can invent the equal.” Whatever else one wishes to say about the experimental nature of this sort of poem of definition, it is clear that Clampitt expects the structure of her sentence, as well as the substance of her images and the truthfulness of her thoughts, to carry the weight of the discovery she challenges us to make with her. From single noun phrases, through extended varieties of plurals and abstractions, to a more elaborate syntactic construction, this poem deepens, becoming more mysterious than any simple experiment in Imagism or list making. Having made a foray into the fog, she comes to realize the partiality of all attempts of “pure” or even impure imagining. Her poem’s breathless, strung-together quality has it own expansiveness.12
The second type of single-sentence poems, poems of enumeration, also pays implicit homage to Bishop’s and Whitman’s habitual polysyndeton and anaphora, although Clampitt works less obviously, and more deviously, in her accumulations. An early enumerative poem, “Meridian” (K, 18), reflects the complexities of punctuation and verblessness and the duplicity of equality and process that I mentioned above. Here it is complete:
First daylight on the bittersweet-hung
sleeping porch at high summer : dew
all over the lawn, sowing diamond-
point-highlighted shadows :
the hired man’s shadow revolving
along the walk, a flash of milkpails
passing : no threat in sight, no hint
anywhere in the universe, of that
apathy at the meridian, the noon
of absolute boredom : flies
crooning black lullabies in the kitchen,
milk-soured crocks, cream separator
still unwashed : what is there to life
but chores and more chores, dishwater,
fatigue, unwanted children : nothing
to stir the longueur of afternoon
except possibly thunderheads :
climbing, livid, turreted alabaster
lit up from within by splendor and terror
Here enumeration is equivalent to process. Although such process often involves physical travel, it need not. (In fact, the most beautiful of these process poems is the one-sentence “A Winter Burial” [W, 315], which chillingly charts birth, growth, death, and burial in twenty-seven haunting lines.) It is tempting to call “Meridian” a description of a summer’s day, moving as it does from early morning through noon to late afternoon, but it really has the quality of a conjuror’s trick. The title announces a potential climax, but this is undermined by the real negation at the poem’s heart—“no threat in sight”—which might very well mean that noon and then afternoon never really arrive in the poem but are merely inferred by the poet’s reflecting mind that fills in absences. In other words, the poem seems to march through the day, but it also potentially never really gets beyond the morning, in spite of its title. There is a hanging back in all those hung phrases: When does “the noon of absolute boredom” occur as something other than a part of an unclear deictic sequence (“that apathy”)? As often happens in her work, Clampitt’s natural timidity or reluctance to specify (in this case, the precise time at which noon strikes, or fails to, in the poem’s time scheme) coincides with her richly inventive descriptions. A haunting absence permeates the accumulations of the sentence-as-list.
Where “Meridian” represents the peculiar poise of absence and presence in a natural process, “A Baroque Sunburst” (WTLWL, 107) plays with participles to skew our sense of action. Verbs, minimal in some of Clampitt’s poems, are here of the essence. The title moves uninterruptedly into the first line:
struck through such a dome
as might await a groaning Michelangelo,
finding only alders and barnacles
and herring gulls at their usual squabbles,
sheds on the cove’s voluted
silver the aloof skin tones
of a Crivelli angel.
What initially appears to be a simple preterite (“struck”) turns out to be a past participle (“[having] struck through such a dome”) that leads through an intervening present participle (“finding”) to the simple, present-tense “sheds”: Clampitt’s ingeniously deceptive verbal sequence replicates a natural temporal process.
Clampitt wants us to see things as process: it’s the old light-as-wave-and-particle syndrome. Like any work of literature, an Amy Clampitt poem progresses through time; additionally, it often treats time as a subject composed of stark, successive, and often nominal moments. Abidance and movement go hand in hand. In this matter, Clampitt’s syntax becomes, along with the luxuriousness of her sounds and images praised by partisans and condemned by critics, her sharpest tool, especially in the more complicated poems, which weave their way in and out of a final shape. Just as “Meridian” presented and also withheld the climax of noon, so “Man Feeding Pigeons” (AF, 263) gives (but more complexly) with one hand and takes away with the other. A twenty-one-line description devolves from an opening generalization: “It was the form of the thing, the unmanaged / symmetry of it.” The configuration of pigeons feeding in a circle reminds the poet of angels in a Ravenna mosaic, of colorful, sculpted, Della Robbia fruit, of a “dance of freewheeling dervishes.” After a colon the poem resumes but with a qualification: “it was the form / of the thing, if a thing is what it was, / and not the merest wisp of a part of / a process.” And what we might have initially mistaken for artifacts, however rapidly transformed and transforming they are, are now reimagined not only as an unending sequence of events but also as a symbolic representation of spiritual conditions unrealizable except through bodily states:
—this unraveling inkling
of the envisioned, of states of being
past alteration, of all that we’ve
never quite imagined except by way of
the body: the winged proclamations,
the wheelings, the stairways, the
vast, concentric, paradisal rose.
Clampitt maneuvers the colon more conventionally here. It does not sit naked, dangerously poised between two equal spaces, but snug against the word it follows and opening into that which follows it after a polite, normal break. And she makes ingenious use of her participles, present as well as past, and gerunds (with the implicit uncertainty of “being,” both participle and gerund) to present movement without time. These pseudo-verbal words impel us into heavenly realms, those “states of being” in which we become beings, beyond alteration ourselves, and resembling the figures from the paradisal inner circle, “a l’alta fantasia qui mancò possa” as Dante has it at the end of the Commedia.
“Man Feeding Pigeons” embodies what Stephen Cushman has described as the truth-giving fiction of any poem’s form.13 We witness two takes on the same phenomenon, as though the poet wants us to feel the relative value of both but finally the superiority of the latter, in which process and spirituality transcend but simultaneously depend on, quite literally, “the form of things.” Like the spirals of incoming and outgoing casual flocks of pigeons making their ambiguous undulations, Clampitt’s sentence pushes us in and speeds us out. Centripetal and centrifugal motions suggest mansions and then journeys to our true, spiritual home.
Justifying his own overfondness for parentheses, Coleridge once referred in a letter to the “drama of reason” contained in a style that could “present the thought growing, instead of a mere Hortus siccus.”14 What parentheses enabled him to do, syntactic ramification does for Clampitt. Svntax (and not just in a single-sentence poem) serves a dramatic, indeed a mimetic function. For this reason, a complex poem like “The August Darks” (WTLWL, 108) deserves to be included among any list of Clampitt’s one-sentence works. Thirty-four lines, one sentence, move to a conclusion, following which a six-word declarative sentence makes a chilling coda, climaxing and undermining the sinuous description of herring boats that set out in darkness before daylight appears.
Although I have called the bulk of this poem a sentence, it is not. Once again, Clampitt relies on the fiction of a completed utterance, but the combination of apposition, enumeration, and subordination weaves her readers through the strung-out phrasing and never leaves them in possession of anything more than glittering parts. Like Keats’s “To Autumn,” the most prominent Romantic poem with a grammatical sleight of hand (the invocation of the first stanza comes to an ending that is incomplete, and that must be enjambed, over a terminal period, into the second stanza: “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness . . . . Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?”), Clampitt’s poetry of misconceived termination carries us along until we either forget our grammatical progress or mistakenly think that we have encompassed a series of discrete clauses.
Like those other poems that take as their subject almost imperceptible temporal change, “The August Darks” works by slowly transforming its scope and focus. It does so by eliminating natural connectives—not just explicit verbs but also prepositions or conjunctions that might put things in perspective for us—and by replacing them with metaphors, which subtly shift attention from one item in a sequence to the next. Here are the first six lines:
Stealth of the flood tide, the moon dark
but still at work, the herring shoals
somewhere offshore, looked for
but not infallible, as the tide is,
as the August darks are—
stealth of the seep of daylight.
Even before stanza 2 essentially restarts it, we are aware that the poem hangs on missing statements. We must translate in order to fill the lacunae. Thus:
Here we have the stealth of the flood tide, in which the moon is
dark but still at work, and the herring shoals, even when looked for,
can’t be found because they and we are not infallible, whereas the
tide and the darks are always infallible.
And at the same moment
that the flood tide and darkness are stealthy, the light is with equal
stealth seeping into the scene.
In this depiction of first light, Clampitt’s figuration complements her syntax. Just as the scene and the syntax move imperceptibly from darkness to daybreak, a central metaphor invades the poem, leaving us uncertain as to what represents what, or, in an older critical vocabulary, what term is tenor and what vehicle. The first fishing boat, ahead of the light, slips out
into the opening aorta, that heaving
reckoning whose flux informs the heart-
beat of the fisherman—poor,
handful of a marvel
murmuring unasked inside the ribcage,
workplace covert as the August darks are,
as is the moon’s work, masked within
the blazing atrium of daylight,
the margin of its dwindling
sanguine as with labor, but effortless.
“Aorta” initially looks like a rhetorical catachresis, a term misapplied, borrowed, or wrested from one thing to give a name to something else that lacks its own, but it then merges with the actual vascular system within the fisherman (“informing” it in several senses): the invisible circulation of the blood in the ribcage parallels the external marine scene and the darkness of the moon, which is replaced by daylight in the shape of the sun, itself a bloody (“sanguine”) ornament rising in the skies. Clampitt seems to have absorbed those poems of Shelley (“To a Skylark,” “The Sensitive Plant”) that revolve around the figure of a known but invisible lunar presence, dimmed by the sun’s light. The application of “fallible-infallible” to the human heart recalls, of course, the opening of the poem and mimics the systole-diastole sequence of a heartbeat.
The paradox of an “effortless labor,” as well as the vast hematological circulatory system within and between external and internal spaces, prepares us for the poem’s conclusion, after an intervening description of a cruise ship on the horizon, on which a performance of Swan Lake might be taking place:
. . . the heartbeat’s prodigies of strain
unseen, the tendons’ ache, the blood-
stained toe shoes, the tulle
out where the herring wait, beyond
the surf-roar on the other side of silence
we should die of (George Eliot
declared) were we to hear it.
From the aorta of the ocean, to the fisherman’s ribcage, to a stage set for dancers with bloodied feet, Clampitt ends her poem with the herring shoals with which it began, bringing it home and moving it out, by reminding us of the revelations available through what Eliot termed “a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life.” This poem, whose theme is imperceptible borders (between darkness and light, outside and inside, work and pleasure, silence and sound), tests our sense of borders by its leisurely pacing. The interlacing of image, diction, and syntax buoys and propels the poem until it reaches its philosophical conclusion.
As often happens in Clampitt’s expanded poems, however, this one retreats at its end to a statement of a simple truth in the form of an anticlimactic, sotto voce aside that balances the preceding thirty-four lines: “Many / have already died of it.” After the expansion comes the reining in; after the artful spinning out of detail comes the grim simplicity of a short declarative sentence. The rhythm of opening and closing belongs to rhetoric as well as to the human heart.
One other intricate poem deserves attention. Taking a stylistic cue from its subject, “The Olive Groves of Thasos” (AF, 198-199) depicts, in a deeply convoluted sentence, a gnarled, entwined landscape. It, too, is both a poem of process (the harvesting of the olive crop) and a stationing, an attempt to convert a scene into an object, constantly transforming itself before our eyes. Syntax here dramatically replicates the shape of the trees and the depth of the landscape. An ongoing process of subordination submerges us so deeply in a sentence that we never quite know where we are until, at line 21, a human action begins. A human action but, as so often in Clampitt, one without a main verb: this sentence, too, has turned out to be a fragment. Beginning with a participle in line 1 (“Thronging the warped treadmill / of antiquity”), twenty lines of apposition and enumeration capture the image of the trees, “these wards of turbulence” in their “burled stupor.” A procession of harvesters appears, but in a subordinate clause so far removed from the poem’s opening that we have forgotten that there has been no independent one:
when from the villages along
the shore, where in the evenings
we watched the fishing
boats go out in strings
of three, in trinities.
From line 21 to line 46, Clampitt begins to notice the termini a quo (“villages,” “hill villages,” “middle villages”) from which, we are relieved to learn (line 46), “the whole populace / turns out, with tarpaulins and / poles, to bring in the harvest / of these trees.” And the poem ends, rounding to its beginning (as M. H. Abrams once defined the Romantic nature lyric),15 with a series of appositives concerning the trees, but now also with a backward glance at the previous human element in the poem:
. . . this time-gnarled
community of elder,—so many-
shaped, so warped, so densely
frugal, so graceful a company,
what more can we say, we who have
seen the summer boats go out,
tasted the dark honey, and savored
the oil-steeped, black, half-bitter fruit?
In these lines that sound like a coda the humanized trees remain the genuine, permanent figures of wisdom and authority, whereas people, whether native workers or American tourists, are merely transient passers-by. Just as the poem began with the trees, so it ends with their fruit.
Clampitt seldom uses a sequence of verbs coming fast upon one another (“say,” “seen,” “tasted,” “savored”), nor does she routinely put questions in terminal positions. I take the last line as an homage to those precursor poems that end inquisitively (“Ode to a Nightingale,” “Mont Blanc,” “Ode to the West Wind,” inter alia). “Frugal” might not be among the first adjectives one would apply to Clampitt’s art, but at this point the relatively simple syntax, the clarity of construction, and the modest evasion of moralizing (“what more can we say?”) conclude the poem economically as well as gracefully. These gestures have an effect comparable to that of the short declarative sentence at the end of “The August Darks,” or the abstraction of “Man Feeding Pigeons,” or the clarified residue of “On the Disadvantages of Central Heating.” And one might also infer that, just as there is no legitimate independent clause in this sprawling one-sentence poem, neither is there any genuine “independent” universe, scene, community, or observation that is not organically, logically, or even partially dependent for its existence on a larger commonwealth of relationships. The deep truth at the heart of all of Clampitt’s poetry is her updating of Coleridge’s “one life within us and abroad.”
Far from spinning webs or wheels for gratuitous ornamental effect, Clampitt writes poems whose seeming overrichness challenges us to perform readerly gymnastics. If at times the exercise confuses and troubles, or threatens to lose us amid a tangle of verbal underbrush (with remembered terrors of reading Cicero in high school Latin class, or of our first forays into Paradise Lost), we must remind ourselves that more than any other contemporary poet—more than Merrill with his quicksilver delicacy, or Ashbery with his perplexingly seamless transitions from one register of diction to another—Clampitt uses her syntax to represent the entire spectrum of processes that engage us to and in the world.
Throughout her work Clampitt masterfully mingles the elegiac and the celebratory, the laconic and the baroque, the clipped and the extensive. Readers who prefer an emaciated, dour, or pared-down poetry will inevitably be put off by an initial reading. But Swinburne on acid? Tennyson gone mad with a thesaurus? Self-indulgent gush? Not at all. They should try again. Clampitt’s finely honed “style,” whatever that elusive term comes to mean, must ultimately be understood as her adjustment of technique to purpose. Her sensuous, deliciously embellished renditions of the natural, the artistic, and the human worlds come in many states of dress and undress. Her poetry gives more than decorative pleasures. It proves—now, when ornament seems to require a new defense against the onslaught of those who prefer their Poetry Lite—that we can applaud richness without embarrasment.
Such applause should ring more loudly because of Clampitt’s turn away from syntax, indeed from language, from all sound but music, at the end. Her last volume, A Silence Opens, appeared just after her death in 1994. She knew she was dying as she composed much of it. For that reason as well as others, the book celebrates silence, paucity, lacunae, and diminishments as her earlier ones sometimes giddily celebrate accumulation and richness. Its opening and closing poems listen to the complexities of silence, before and after language adds meaning. “Syrinx” (363), neither Pan’s nymph nor his pipe but “the reed / in the throat of a bird,” reminds us that significance is really an inconsequential, fortuitous part of sound, and that “syntax comes last.” This “higher form of expression . . . is, in extremity, first to / be jettisoned.” Sheer breath comes first, and is last to go. At the end, the poet of vast hypotactic syntax makes a symbolic gesture. “A Silence” (432–433) abjures punctuation and, for the most part, capital letters and sentence structure. Clampitt writes with a refined wildness, delaying a main verb until the end of twenty lines of phrasal units that locate the place “past parentage or gender / beyond sung vocables” at which “a silence opens.” Grace, nirvana, syncope, call it what you will: the complex religious impulse that drives poets, saints, and mountebanks alike inspires one’s best efforts to define it but always at last thwarts them. The poem leaves us hanging:
who saw in it
love of God
The Collected Poems closes with this opening. The rest, of course, is silence. Such a final utterance testifies, in the religious as well as the secular sense, to Clampitt’s place in American poetry. Earlier I called her an heir to Whitman. It is equally clear that her quirky, absolutely heterodox piety puts her in league with Emily Dickinson, a more austere eccentric, whose “breathless, hushed excess . . . stoppered prodigies, compressions and / devastations within the atom” (“Amherst,” W, 319) Clampitt has studied, absorbed, and reinvented, although she never resorts to Dickinson’s primly syncopated versions of hymn meter. To have combined so dramatically the models of our national poetic forebears gives Clampitt another claim on our attention: she has secured a place for herself in our literary history that is, quite simply, unlike that of any other contemporary.
This essay also appears in “How Poets See the World” by Willard Speigelman (c) 2005 by Oxford University Press.
1. The quotations come from Charles Berger, “Poetry Chronicle,”Raritan 10 (1991): 123; Mary Karr, “Against Decoration,” Parnasuss 16, no. 2 (1991): 277; and Robert McDowell, “The Wilderness Surrounds the Word,” Hudson Review 43 (1991): 673.
2. Amy Clampitt, The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt (New York: Knopf, 1997). All pages numbers are cited from this edition; throughout, I refer parenthetically to the volumes in which the poems originally appeared, thus: The Kingfisher (K); What the Light Was Like (WTLWL); Archaic Figure (AF); Westward (W); and A Silence Opens (ASO).
3. Karr, 277.
4. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature” [Essays, 1st series], in Essays and Lectures, ed. Joel Porte (New York: Library of America, 1983), 545.
5. See Bonnie Costello, “Amy Clampitt: Nomad Exquisite,” in Shifting Ground: Reinventing the Landscape in Modern American Poetry (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003), 117–142, originally published in Verse 10, no. 3 (winter 1993): 34–36 (an issue devoted to Clampitt), for a discussion of Clampitt's sense of “belonging” or not belong to a specific place and of her connections to Elizabeth Bishop (another nomad) and Marianne Moore.
6. See especially Mark Doty, Atlantis (New York: Harper/Perennial, 1995). The opening poem, “Description,” asks pointedly: “What is description, after all, / but encoded desire?” Language grants access to, even termporary control over, the external world that we try to contain.
7. Someone like W. S. Merwin, who has written whole volumes without punctuation, hardly fits into the same category as Clampitt, nor do the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets, although comparisons between them and Clampitt may prove instructive.
8. I except, of course, critics whose training was primarily New Critical: John Hollander, Christopher Ricks, Helen Vendler, and even Stanley Fish. Richard Howard turns an appropriate phrase when he writes of Clampitt: “The poem is wreathed around its grammar, often being one very long sentence, submissive to the voice, observant of the local inflections, but governing the weight of the lines on the page, down the page . . . . [Clampitt's lineage may be traced to] the incremental redundancies of Robert Browning, whose music is syntactical, not a matter of chiming.” “The Hazardous Definition of Structures,” Parnassus II, no. I (1983): 271–272.
9. Calvin Bedient, “Sentencing Eros,” Salmagundi, no. 97 (winter 1993): 179.
10. Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems 1927–1979 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), 173.
11. The issues of the colon in this volume is a vexed one: the majority are conventionally printed, and the others have either been printed unconventionally for a specific effect or else by error. In addition, there are discrepancies between the appearance of some poems in The Collected Poems and their earlier appearances in journals or single volumes. Either Clampitt or her editors made changes or failed to proofread carefully. Among other poets, Muriel Rukeyser was the most eccentric in her use of colons: virtually all of them are separated by several spaces on either side from what precedes and follows them. Poets conventional in other ways often have punctuational idiosyncracies. I think of Yusef Komunyaaka's insistence on “&” for
12. An analogue to this phenomenon, in Whitman, is “Song of Myself,” section 33. The third paragraph, beginning, “By the city's quadrangular houses— log huts, camping with the lumberman,” moves through thirty-nine anaphora-laden lines to a simple finale: “I tread day and night such roads.” A more complicated example is “Scented herbage of my breast: (Calamus), which has a fuller, more varied anaphora than my previous example, and moves, with no full pauses (except some question marks and exclamations, which nevertheless do not signify closure), through thirty-seven lines from one vocative (“Scented herbage”) to another (addressed to Death): “That may-be you are what it is all for, but it does not last so very long, / but you will last very long.” No line is the poem is as short as its conclusion.
13. Stephen Cushman, Fictions of Form in American Poetry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993). Cushman follows the lead of John Hollander in understanding that, in poetry, “scheme” can become “trope,” that shape and form produce, as well as convey, meaning; see the exemplary chapters in Hollander’s Melodious Guile: Fictive Pattern in Poetic Language (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), and Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form (New York: Oxford Universtiy Press, 1975).
14. Ernest Hartley Coleridge, ed., The Letters of Samuel Taylkor Coleridge (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1895), 2: 558–559, to Thomas Poole, January 28, 1810: “Of parentheses I may be too fond, and will be on my guard against them. But I am certain that no work of impassioned and eloquent reasoning ever did or could subsist without them They are the drama of reason, and present the thought growing, instead of a mere Hortus siccus. The aversion to them is one of the numberless symptoms of a feeble Frenchified public.”
15. M. H. Abrams, “Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric,” in Frederick W. Hilles and Hrald Bloom, eds., From Sensibility to Romanticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), 527–560. In their roundedness, many of Clampitt's meditative poems owe a considerable debt to the construction of poems such as “Tinturn Abbey” and “Frost at Midnight.”